Women leave the workforce for so many reasons; they take time off to raise kids, care for aging parents, move, or retire. According to Pew Research, 42% of women have said they've had to reduce their work hours at some point during their career, and 39% have taken a chunk of time off.
The pandemic hasn't made it any easier, with Zoom school and a lack of daycare options. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 2.2 million fewer women in the labor force in October 2020 than in October 2019.
With the pandemic winding down and most school districts set to reopen in the fall, many are likely looking for on-ramps back into the workforce. The question many women are asking themselves is how?
One option is called a "returnship," which is usually a selective, paid, immersive program designed to help talent find a way back into the workforce after an extended time away. Returnships can include classroom instruction, coaching, and practical experience to help participants get an authentic feel for what jobs in a specific field are like. At the end of the program, participants often have the chance to be hired into the company.
"Returning to the workforce can be difficult," says Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch.com, a career re-entry firm, and the co-author of "Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work." "The process includes all the typical elements of a job search, plus 'relaunchers' might have a diminished sense of self from having been professionally disconnected for an extended period, which is hard in a society that often defines who we are as people in terms of what we do for work."
Because of that, she says, relaunchers have a special need to rebuild their confidence, reinvigorate their networks, and either reskill or upskill depending on whether they're returning to their previous field or entering a new one. To do all of that successfully, they often need the type of transitional support that's offered by a returnship, says Cohen.
So, should you do a returnship? And if you want to, how do you even find one? Excellent questions — and we've got some answers.
The advantages of a 'returnship'
There are some solid reasons to pursue a returnship as a path back into the workforce. The programs are generally well-structured and aim to introduce participants precisely to what they need to know to be adequately prepared to get back in the game.
They also leave participants with valuable recent experience to list on their resumes and a slew of new contacts. This means that even if participants aren't offered a job on-site, they'll still graduate with new knowledge and potential references who can vouch for their recent performance. Plus, returners to the workforce often get considered for raises and promotions sooner than their colleagues because they already have work experience, notes Cohen.
"Relaunchers tend to ramp up faster than employers — or even the relaunchers themselves —
The disadvantages of a 'returnship'
Before jumping into a returnship program, it's important to think through exactly what you need in a job and where you might end up after graduating from a re-entry program. If you plan to go back into a field that you initially left because of inflexibility and lack of growth opportunities, then "going back" might not be what you need.
"In some cases, it's useful to ask what made it so impossible to stay in the first place," says Gina Hadley, the co-founder of The Second Shift. This platform connects qualified female candidates to companies that offer family-friendly professional opportunities. "More hybrid work possibilities are developing in some industries, which hopefully will help retain more female leadership. But in others, going through a returnship can lead back to the same hours and requirements as before."
How to find a 'returnship'
Suppose you're interested in finding a returnship. In that case, there are resources and databases at Path Forward, reacHIRE and iRelaunch.com, which also hosts a conference twice annually to help connect employers with available talent from unexpected pipelines. In addition, many major companies, such as Deloitte, HubSpot, Intuit, Accenture, PayPal, Microsoft, IBM, Walmart, JP Morgan Chase, NBC Universal, and Hewlett Packard, have application information on their websites. If you can't determine from research if your preferred company has a re-entry program, try reaching out to their HR department directly. Indeed smaller companies and businesses might even consider working with you to create a customized program or to have you consult on a project as a provisional step to becoming more permanent.
From an employer's perspective, folks looking to return to the workforce are attractive candidates. "Relaunchers are educated, have great work experience, a mature perspective, and are at a relatively stable life stage," Cohen says. "They're also enthusiastic about returning to the office because they've been away from work for so long."
What to do if a 'returnship' isn't right for you
Instead of offering returnships, some companies create ways for women to re-enter the workforce on their own terms. Park Place Payments, a woman-founded and owned fintech company, uses a business model that specifically aims to help women return to the workforce and gain financial independence by earning revenue and residuals from selling payment processing systems. Their goal? "To remove the barriers for women trying to get back on to a professional career path," says Selina Meere, the company's vice president of marketing and business development.
Similarly, online communities including The Riveter, Power to Fly, HeyMama, The Mom Project, Après, and The Second Shift aim to connect female talent to well-paid flexible and remote opportunities. "Some companies finally understand what balance looks like, and that working mothers have been spinning plates for a very long time," says Hadley, which means that "today, things are more flexible and more pliable than they have been in the past." And that is leading to new kinds of professional opportunities.
In other words, companies want applicants just like you. The next step is simply figuring out what kind of work relationship with them is best for you.